Should you buy an unlimited-ride Metrocard?

Unless you count a three-month internship in college, I've never lived in New York City. But, between friends and work, I've managed to visit every couple years or so and I've nearly always picked up an unlimited-ride Metrocard for my week in town. Turns out, choosing to do so is an excellent example of Maggie not being super great at math. Michael Moyer has plotted out the numbers on unlimited-ride Metrocards. He says the purchase only makes sense if you're riding a lot—averaging 14 rides a week for the 7-Day-Pass or 12 rides a week for the 30-Day-Pass. Any less and you're actually better off paying a la carte.


  1. i get the standard commuter will ride 2x/day but as a visitor it seems like you’d ride more often.  i have whenever i’ve been in new york visiting… 3 and 4 are pretty standard days.

  2. Maggie – this math is sound, but maybe the use case is a bit unrealistic. This assumes that you go to work, then come straight home, then are in for the night.

    Most New Yorkers don’t go to work, them come straight home during the week. You go to work, then maybe the gym and meet friends for dinner/drinks, then home, getting home at 10-11. That’s 3-4 rides a day. On the weekend, you don’t necessarily stay in your neighborhood, either – you go to brunch, run errands, come into Manhattan for a movie/art exhibit, something. That’s at least 2 rides there. Now that I am biking to/from work, I’m buying a per-ride card, but come November, that’s going to become a monthly.

  3. Two things that others will point out…if you count work (10 trips), it shouldn’t be terribly hard to hit 14 in an average week…but also there is the utility of a single pass vs lots of tokens or change or what have you…I buy the monthly pass here in Toronto mostly because I find myself not taking trips when I was on tokens…while I am sure I “lose” monthly, it’s not enough to really worry about. However, if I do plan on being out of town or something for more than a few days in a month, I won’t buy a pass that month.

    1. In NYC there’s no cash or tokens involved anymore. Everything is on the metrocard. You either charge it up with a set amount of money and play $2.25 per ride using the car and get unlimited cards that last a finite amount of time.  So you have to get the card either way. The unlimited only becomes worthwhile if you would be meeting or exceeding its cost per unlimited time period.

      1. It may still be worth it for the convenience of knowing that you’re not going to run dry and have to recharge the card.  If I were paying $104 and only riding $90 worth, I’d probably do it anyway.

        1. Yeah, the convenience of never having to think about having change or anything is worth a little extra.

        2.  I lived in Toronto for a few years myself, with no car (by choice).  I bought the monthly pass every month, even though I probably averaged right around breakeven on the cost, after business trips, car rides from coworkers and riding my bike.  The convenience of knowing that it was always paid for was significant psychologically.  The few times I misplaced or loaned out my card, I found that my use of the system was lower and I didn’t go as many places or make as many stops.

          In Toronto,  if you committed annually to the pass, you got a ~10% discount, plus the cost of the monthly cards are eligible for a tax credit, which I think resulted in an additional discount of ~15%.  I think the net number ends up right at $100/month today, give or take a bit.  It worked out to about the equivalent of ~33 full price cash fares at $3, or ~40 tokens if bought in quantity at $2.50 per.  The average work month has about 21 business days after adjusting for federal holidays (but excluding vacation time), so just commuting paid the freight, or close enough, and I had a free pass to the city for my leisure time.

          The New York math is a little less forgiving, at $104 for a month but only $2.10 for a discounted single fare.  Harder to justify the pass financially if you are trying to do it based on commuting alone, since the magic  number climbs from 40 in Toronto to 50 in NYC.  The extra 10 rides between the two might have put me off the pass if I were back in that situation for the first time and relying on the math alone.  Knowing the psychological factor, I would probably just stick with the monthly pass, even in New York.

          1. The math as far as NYC go was far more forgiving in the past. Last time they changed pricing they sort of restructured things to favor people who live and work in the city, where as in the past it was intended to be  more tourist friendly.

        3. Yes. In some situations, a card saves time, and not a small amount either, due to available express gates/turnstiles. For me, that has value. 

        4. In Boston, you can recharge the Charlie Card on any bus or at any subway station.  (The busses still take cash, but I believe putting it on the card first gets you a slight discount. Note that the discount is *not* applied to the paper ticket, which is effectively a “soak the clueless tourists” tax.)

        5. In London with an Oyster Card it’s possible to set the card to recharge automatically (“Auto Top-up”).  Mine is set to add £20 whenever the balance falls below £5.  The ticket gate (or the thing on a bus, it works everywhere) makes a different kind of beeping noise when this happens.

          It’s also possible to have a travelcard, and cash, and auto-topup.

        6.  You recharge the card in 20 secs, at one of the kiosks in the subway w/ cash or debit/cc. I very rarely encounter an interminable line at them.

  4. The math also doesn’t work for MUNI in SF.  I used to buy monthly passes or use a half-month pass/BART card combo, which they’re trying to retire.  In the latter case I was using it for a 3 stage commute (four if you counted a half mile bicycle ride at the end) to Livermore: MUNI > BART > Wheels (Livermore area system).  The BART Plus card had BART fare and then half a month’s free rides on both MUNI and Wheels (and a few others), but when I did the math on it, I realized that with all the transfers and reduced fare bulk purchases I could have been doing, I was actually paying more for the pass.  That said, not having to do all that work and keep all the tokens and transfer slips was worth the small differential.

    And it was worth it for me to get the MUNI pass before because there’s nothing worse than stumbling out of a BART station at 1am in the morning, staring up that goddamn hill, and realizing you only have twenties in your pocket, but with the Clipper card I was able to see very precisely what my commute cost, and it was much cheaper than buying a pass: cheap enough that I don’t mind hopping on a Cable Car when the opportunity presents itself.

    1. Keep in mind MUNI is trying pretty hard to screw its riders.  An average trip costs MUNI over $2 per person (light rail is about $3, cable cars about $7).  MUNI pays BART about 90 cents per trip.  Yet they charge, what, a $30/mo premium for a monthly pass that covers BART and MUNI (vs the MUNI only pass)?

      The real bonus, for the less ethical amongst us, is that Clipper cards still let you carry a negative balance.  If you’ve got $1 on your card, you can still get a trip anywhere on MUNI (except the cable cars).  Toss it away when you hit -$1.00, and buy a new one next time you’re in the subway.  Combined with nearly non-existent proof of payment enforcement and drivers that will often hand out 4 hour transfers, I wouldn’t ever worry about not having money for MUNI.

      1. “An average trip costs MUNI over $2 per person (light rail is about $3, cable cars about $7).”

        If that’s true, then given that bus and light rail (including the F line) are $2 with 90 minutes of free transfers, and the cable car costs $5 (albeit with no transfers) it sounds like MUNI is the one getting screwed, with the exception, perhaps, of the monthly passes.

        Of course, public transit should be heavily subsidized.  In fact, much more heavily subsidized.

  5. Also consider that as someone who lives in NYC (not a tourist) you can get your unlimited metrocard pre-tax using transit check program. This means more savings.

    1.  You can get pay-per-ride Metrocards pre-tax as well.   Assuming your employer offers that option through Transitchek.

  6. I get the one-week unlimited card every time I come to New York for 5 days or more.  You’re not just buying the rides, but the mindset.  In other words, when your feet are getting sore from all the walking you’re likely to do, you allow yourself the 6 block bus ride or 3 stop subway ride.  Or a quick trip up to that deli for lunch and back when your plans are in the opposite direction.  

  7. A significant factor to consider–coming from someone who works from home in NYC and thus isn’t commuting every day–is that having a pay-per-ride MetroCard could make you feel significantly less mobile. If you’re always gaming the cost of going places and doing things (e.g. “my trip to Trader Joe’s today is really cost plus $4.50”, “my haircut today is going to cost an extra five bucks if I don’t combine it with another errand”, “take the G to Williamsburg for a beer? now it’s a $13 pint”), you might get frustrated pretty quickly. Being flexible and mobile is important, and if you’re good at not letting the numbers get in your way like that, sure, pay-per-ride is fine.

  8. I’ve never been to NYC, but I’d opt for the convenience of the unlimited ride card.  I feel like I’m wasting more if I charge it up and don’t spend it all…plus I never have to worry about if I have enough on the card to go do something.  (Just speaking from my experience using the subways in DC.)

    1.  I’m a big fan of the Easypay Metrocard.   I have it linked to both my TransitChek debit card (which gets funded each month from pre-tax dollars out of my paycheck) and a backup credit card in case I run out of TransitChek funds, so it never runs out or needs refilling.

      On top of that, I can track my usage online so I can confirm each month that I’m not spending enough to make the switch to an unlimited worthwhile (and can ask for a refund if I’m accidentally charged twice for the same ride or something).   And if I lose it or it gets stolen, I can simply e-mail them and they’ll shut it off and send me a new one (they even refund charges if somebody uses it between the time you send the e-mail and the time they cancel the card). 

      The only downside is that their customer service is super slow.  It takes almost a month to get a replacement card if you lose it.    And I supposed there are privacy issues.  But who cares about privacy around here? ;)

  9. Basically since most recent fare increase the rule of thumb was if you commuted both ways on the subway and still could expect to use the subway (say on weekends or going out after work) its worth it. And many of us get our unlimiteds effectively free through work as part of a tax incentive or compensation package.  So if you live in work in NYC usually a good deal. 

    It was all quite different when the rates were lower, especially when they used to make the one day “fun pass” for like 8 bucks. If memory serves it could be swiped endlessly with none of the time restriction used for the cards now. So $8 bucks and your whole group could use it, very helpful for when family visited.

  10. BTW, for buying MetroCards by the ride, the magic number is $39.95. With the 7% bonus, you end up with a $42.75 valued card which can be run down to $0 in 19 rides. Otherwise you will end up with odd change left over on your card, which the MTA gets to keep. 

    1. You can refill metrocards, you know, so you don’t lose the odd change. And when they expire, you can take them to an MTA agent to transfer the balance to a new card.

  11. As a regular MTA commuter, I will say that the unlimited pass is a nice luxury, particularly if your work pays for it, but in practicality you usually do not save any money, or in some instances lose money. There have been days where I have had to swipe at least 4 times, but on most days, it is typically one swipe to work and one swipe back. It may hurt your wallet that one day that you burn through $10, but it is made up on those few days out of the month where you can hitch a ride with someone driving, or you worked from home. 

  12. and what about the 7% bonus when you buy a $10+ metrocard math.   most new yorkers don’t bother to do that math and end up with a useless $1.70 metrocard at the end of a week.   not useless, but no one wants to figure out how much to refill it.    

    i do whatever pat kiernan says:  do a custom amount, $39.95 (+ 7% = $42.75)  viola, a number divisible by $2.25

    1. The cards are  refillable so that $1.70 just gets the new total when you refill for whatever amount. That’s actually one of the points of the bonus system, reduce waste by prompting people to refill. The one time a card expired on me with some cash still on it it was like $.35, which far less than the 7% freebees I’d gotten in using it for how ever long they last.

  13. I am from NY (but not NYC) and a lot of my friends from high school live in NYC or the surrounding area now, so it’s easy for me to visit since I don’t need to get hotels or anything. The reason that this is relevant is that this is a unique use case – I usually stay with my friend who lives on Long Island right next to a LIRR station, not within the city itself, and I don’t necessarily go into the city every day when I’m there.

    So I might be there for a week but only end up going into subway territory four of those days. Theoretically, it still makes sense to buy a week pass because you can very easily ride the subway several times a day. In practice, though, I almost never end up using the subway more than three times a day (so 12 rides for the week). I tend to plan out what I’m going to do, and arrange it so that I can walk as much as possible (because while I greatly enjoy the subway, I also greatly enjoy walking in the city).

    I vastly prefer the mindset that an unlimited pass gives you, such that you can just hop on as you please and not think about it. However with my system I load $20 on my metrocard every few days as needed and I end up in a similar mindset – I just don’t worry about it because I’m mostly walking anyway, and even if I overpay a little bit I don’t really care.

    Also, it takes a long time for metrocards to expire. I’ve been using the same one for a couple years now, and I’ve been to NYC maybe twice a year. So if there’s some money left on it at the end of my stay I don’t worry about it because it’ll still be there and I can just recharge the card on top of that next time I’m there – if you don’t fully exploit a weekly or monthly pass, you don’t keep the extra money!

  14. Serious question: How do you manage to not take at least 2 rides a day as a visitor to New York? Do you just stay within walking distance of everywhere you want to go? Take cabs everywhere?

    1.  It is an incredibly walkable city. The bulk of manhattan is a fairly simple grid, which is nice. Before I lived here it was crazy and daunting, but now if I’m between chinatown & 34th, I walk. Chinatown to 60th, I’d be more inclined to train it.
      I can also totally see taking the train a LOT while visiting, absolutely.
      This is how we exhaust visitors.
      Interestingly, despite the chaos of ALL THE TINY STREETS, I also found London to be similarly pedestrian (in a good way). They put out maps at about the interval you start feeling lost. With an AtoZ, we didn’t take the tube a whole lot.

  15. You’re definition of “a lot” is very different from mine. Admitadly, I don’t live in or anywhere near NYC,  but anyone that uses transit as their primary way to get around isn’t going to have any difficulty wracking up an average of 12 trips a week. Assume five days of work or school, and one social activity, shopping trip or what have you… that’s 12 trips right there.

  16. Chicago would be similar math, but they throw a bit of a monkey-wrench in with they way they handle transfers.  After an initial charge of $2.25 to board, the next swipe within 2 hours is considered to be a transfer and cost only $0.25.  So if you time your trips right, you can manage a round-trip for just $2.50

    Also, Chicago got rid of the bonus when adding more than $20 to your card, which blows, but they do allow you to tie it to your credit card so that it auto-refills when it gets low.

    1. Yeah transfers technically exist in NYC but in practice not so much. The few times I’ve tried to get one I was told no. So perhaps another reason to go unlimited in NYC.

      1.  Bus-to-train (or train to bus, and SOME bus-to-bus) gets a transfer. With a metrocard, it goes automatically (within 2 hours, or sometimes one or an hour-and-a-half). If you pay cash on the bus, you can ask for one, but more times than not they give to a bus-to-bus transfer “by mistake”.

    2. I am pretty sure that the math works better in Chicago. The 30-day pass pays for itself on your 39th ride (assuming no transfers). That means, if you use your 30-day pass for the first time on August 1, and you only commute to and from work every weekday, you are getting free rides on the 28-30, not to mention anything on the weekends. I think it’s well worth it. 

      You can also use this option with your Chicago Plus card instead of doing the auto-refill.

  17. I do my twelve without breaking a sweat; that is just commuting to work & then an average of one more roundtrip a week.  I might be lazy on the weekends but I’m not (on average) THAT lazy!

  18. Works out about the same in Vancouver, but you have to buy a monthly pass or packs of 20 tickets.  They really stick it to the one-off point of sale riders though – tickets are way cheaper, and passes if you ride a lot.

    Unless you are like me, and use your fresh new $110 monthly pass once, then absent mindedly toss it in a garbage can after getting off the bus, as if it were just a basic ticket.  

  19. When I worked in Manhattan (and lived in Brooklyn), I’d make at least the break-even going to work 5 days a week and doing errands & visiting & whatnot on the weekends. Now I live within walking distance of work & rarely even get to take the subway, so I usually just get $10 re-ups whenever I have to. I end up spending about $20/week at most.

  20. In addition to the convenience factor mentioned above, sometimes you have to figure that the transit authority just needs the money more than you do.

    In St. Louis they do.

  21. all of the above not to mention taking the bus. i always buy a weekly except when i know i’ll be out of town. speaking of the bus, have you ever run for a bus in the rain only discover that your Metrocard is empty/expired and you don’t just happen to have $2.25 in exact change in your pocket and the bus driver is a total jerk? believe me it sucks, but not as much as the fact that for some reason NYC busses only take change; no dollar bills. the greatest city on earth can’t even figure out what every other city in the civilized world has done for years.

  22. Don’t you figure how often and how long you would otherwise wait in line—especially with children—into your math?

    1. No. There’s rarely a line.

      Of course, children can make it a burden when they keep hitting buttons and laughing at daddy because he has to start over after they screw up the transaction.

      Ever tried to complete the transaction from memory because, thanks to the little rat, the screen is in Korean and you don’t feel like starting over?

  23. I always get the 7-day unlimited pass when visiting a city. It might be a bit more expensive than a la carte paying but I’m already stressed trying to figure out how to get around. I don’t want to have a pocket full of change to deal with too.

  24. The other night my friend was treating us to pizza and beer after helping him move. We walked in and he said to the cashier, “I’ll take 8 slices of the day please”. She looked a little dumbfounded. No one had previously figured out that this was cheaper than ordering a large pizza. Plus we got our pizza right away and fresh out of the oven!

  25. The unlimited ride was all about getting people to use the card when they preferred tokens (the card itself is all about making it easier to raise fares). Once people got used to the card, they jacked up the price to essentially eliminate the unlimited card without the PR fallout of actually eliminating the unlimited card.

    These days, it’s a bad deal even for most New Yorkers who ride the subway to work every day.

    As for worrying about the per-ride running out, every time I use it, it tells me how much I have left so I never get stuck and I don’t fill my per-ride card any more often than I would fill my unlimited card.

  26. I bought one when I was touristing in NY on the cheap… it was definitely worth it for me, as I was on the subway 6 or 8 times a day.

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